A TOURING Parisian jazz violinist has stopped off in Bishop Auckland for an impromptu performance above a café in tribute to one of the greatest violinists of all time who played there nearly 200 years ago.

Daniel John Martin is more at home in the famous Paris jazz club Aux Petits Joueurs, but last week he played above Sam Zair’s café in Fore Bondgate, where Niccolò Paganini is believed to have played in the early 1830s.

From the early 18th Century, the café was Bishop Auckland’s foremost meeting place, with a large assembly room on the first floor which was used for important gatherings like public inquiries and magistrates hearings, and for balls, concerts and theatrical performances.

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Sam Zair's Cafe, Bishop Auckland

Daniel was touring the North-East last week with the Gypsy jazz band Swing Manouche and, after playing at Bishop Auckland Town Hall, he heard his hero Paganini had performed in the town and he wanted to see where.

“I am a big fan of Paganini’s,” said Daniel. “I study him all the time. He is one of the greatest things in the history of music. He was the first star interpreter of music. He was so clever that people thought he had made a pact with the devil.

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Niccolò Paganini

“He came to play in the ballroom here – they must have paid him a lot of money, because he was very expensive – and when I heard that, I wanted to pay tribute to my personal hero.

“I like the way, over the crash of time, our paths have come to cross here in Bishop Auckland.”

Paganini was born in Genoa in Italy in 1782, and because of his freakishly long and subtle fingers, he was able to play 12 notes a second – a speed so fast that people believed he had sold his soul to the devil in return from him becoming a virtuoso.

Another story says that Paganini murdered a woman, imprisoned her soul within his violin and used her intestines as strings – it was said you could hear her crying out in anguish every time he played.

Paganini really made his name with his European tour of 1828 to 1831, which he followed with a tour of Britain. The huge crowds noted the brilliance of his interpretation and of his own compositions, the speed of his playing, and that they had never seen anyone perform in public before without sheet music.

He retired from performing in 1834 due to ill health, many of his problems provoked by his lustful and extravagant lifestyle, and he died in 1840.

When he appeared in Bishop Auckland, the Fore Bondgate property was known as the Shepherd’s Inn. It had a tiered roof so spectators could watch the horseracing on what is now the Kynren site while enjoying the landlord’s hospitality.

Another big name to have performed in the ballroom in the1830s was William Macready, the greatest actor of his generation, famed in London and New York.

For a century or more, the Shepherd’s Inn was said to have been more important to most ordinary townspeople than the Bishop of Durham’s Auckland Castle nearby.

However, the Shepherd’s prominence faded after 1862 when the Town Hall was built in the Market Place, replacing it as the town’s number one venue.

In the decades since, it has been converted and sub-divided, and now it houses the café on the ground floor while there is a holiday let, called the Assembly Rooms, on the first floor. It still has tall windows and ornate ceiling plasterwork which, although largely hidden behind false ceilings, are reminders of the grandeur and importance of the building when Paganini played.

“It has been in our family since 1899, and the history within its four walls is astounding,” said Mr Zair. “We were amazed when Daniel came in and asked to play and delighted to allow him to do so.”